Last week’s announcement that Kansas University would offer 15 new online graduate degree and certificate programs is a positive step, but it seems more like KU is playing catch-up than being an innovative leader in online education.
It’s no secret that KU has been slow to embrace online programs. The university currently has only two degree programs online: one in education and one in pharmacy. Now, instead of developing its own online program, the university apparently is trying to jump-start its efforts by contracting with an online education start-up company that will take courses already being taught by KU and package them for online students.
The company, called Everspring, also will handle marketing and recruitment for the courses, all of which are part of KU’s School of Education. In return, Everspring will split tuition revenue for the courses with KU, getting 55 percent of the tuition money at the start, declining to 35 percent as enrollment grows.
It’s smart of KU to try to capitalize on some of its strongest programs, including special education, which has the top-rated graduate program among the nation’s public universities, according to U.S. News and World Report. Such programs seem likely to draw strong enrollment among working professionals in the Midwest and beyond.
The fact that Everspring is a new company with no track record is somewhat troubling. Its CEO touts big plans to build “an ecosystem” that makes online students feel more supported and connected to their coursework. However, he acknowledged that KU will be the first university to use the system he referred to as “higher education online 2.0.”
Hiring Everspring may work out for KU, but it feels like the university is trying to take a shortcut after falling behind other universities that have been working to develop online programs for years. Fort Hays State University has been a leader in distance learning for some time, and Kansas State University announced last week that it would add an online Master of Business Administration program next year to its list of dozens of online undergraduate and graduate programs in education, agriculture, engineering, business and other fields.
In announcing the new programs, KU Provost Jeff Vitter applauded the efforts of the School of Education to establish online programs and expressed the hope that other schools and departments would follow the education school’s example. Vitter is right to praise the School of Education, but KU should do more than simply hope that its other academic units step up their efforts to establish online programs. Demand for such programs is strong, and KU needs to redouble its efforts to catch up with its peers.